Sunday, June 29, 2008

Another snippet on journal publishing

Well, at long last, I've finished my essay, "Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing." I'll be posting a full draft of the piece to the "Acknowledged Goods" page on the Differences & Repetitions Wiki. The wiki formatting will take some time, however, and for now, I have to direct my energies toward revising an essay on Harry Potter and the simulacrum. Once the full version of "Acknowledged Goods" is up on D&R-W, you'll be sure to hear about it. For now, comments, ratings, and other feedback on this excerpt are welcome here.

[From the Section on Alienation]

...Most of us probably have done it at one time or another. By “it” I mean signing a publication agreement for a recently accepted journal article without reading the document carefully, or without pausing to consider the meaning and consequences of all the warrants, indemnities, and clauses ending with those ominous sounding words, “in perpetuity and in any form.” Like me, you probably resigned yourself to committing to the agreement, since the publisher told you, perhaps through a low-level editorial contact at the journal, that publication of your piece was contingent on your doing so without delay. Signing on the dotted line is “policy” she or he probably told you, politely but firmly, and if you do not do so promptly, you are liable to hold up production on the issue in which your work is scheduled to appear. Worse, if you hold out for too long, you risk having your essay dropped altogether. And so begrudgingly you sign, because keeping the process moving along would seem to outweigh whatever benefits might come from making an issue of it.

To me, this is among the most profound—and profoundly alienating—moments of academic labor. I mean this in both the Marxian sense of “alienation,” in which participation in the system of objectified wage labor existentially impoverishes of one’s species-being, as well as in the more strictly legal sense of the term, as defined by Margaret Jane Radin: “a separation of something—an entitlement, right, or attribute—from its holder.” Beyond these definitions, the ritual signing of journal publication contracts is alienating in at least three specific ways.

First, the extreme sense of urgency that tends to surround the whole process is incommensurate with the time it takes for most academic articles to appear in print. In my experience, this interval can last anywhere from six to eighteen months from the day I sign a publication agreement; in rare cases it has been shorter, and I know of myriad instances in which it has taken even longer. The atmosphere of last-minute-ism may help keep the publication process running smoothly. On the downside, it can preempt academic authors from reflecting critically on the legal documents we are charged with signing, which can in turn lead to the hasty forfeiture of key rights and entitlements—assuming we are even aware of them.

Second, the process cultivates a habitus in which we are perpetually disposed “to take one for the team.” Practically no one wants to be the curmudgeon responsible for delaying an entire journal issue while trying to negotiate terms of publication. Publishers recognize this. Consciously or not, they leverage this goodwill by persuading authors to sign away our rights in the name of a collective interest (i.e., timely publication). They do so by capitalizing on an incentive structure in which, ironically, a desire to be perceived as “collegial” and “professional” compels academic authors to deprive one another of the chance to question journal publishers, attorneys, or others about the legal ramifications of publishing our work.

Finally, the contractual moment alienates us scholars from the products of our labor. It customarily involves the transfer of key rights (e.g., ownership, duplication, derivation, etc.) from author to publisher, in whole or in part, in exchange for a variety of value-added services (e.g., typesetting, copyediting, marketing, etc.) and indirect rewards (e.g., promotion, tenure, professional recognition, etc.). Those benefits notwithstanding, signing on the dotted line transforms our labor into economically valuable intellectual property and, down the line, capital—assets publishers use to compete with one another in the marketplace. Our signatures allow journal publishers to disavow liability in matters of copyright infringement, obscenity, and so forth, moreover, thereby endowing them with deep ownership rights over material for which they accept only shallow legal responsibilities. An added “bonus” is that academic authors typically must shoulder all of the costs related to reproducing copyrighted images, song lyrics, and related materials, even though it is the journal publisher who reaps any financial rewards. In these cases, we are not merely giving our labor away, essentially for free; we are effectively paying a third party for the “privilege” of doing so.

Journal publication contracts are magical documents indeed. They transfigure good knowledge into saleable knowledge goods, in a series of moves that implicate us in, while keeping us at arm’s length from, the noisy sphere of industrial production....

Friday, June 27, 2008

Rate this post!

Sorry to keep obsessing over new blogging features, but I have another exciting one to share with you. Now, along with comments and sharing, you can weigh in on the quality of my blog posts using the "ratings" attribute, which appears a few lines under each entry. What's nice is that you needn't be logged into Blogger or any other service to do this. Simply scroll over the stars and give the post as many (or, ahem, as few) as you want.

I should add that something about this feature vaguely reminds me of the American Idol version of "democracy," but I suppose that's a post for another time....

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Good housekeeping

You may have noticed that D&R looks a little, well, different than it used to. Yesterday, I made a few changes that I hope will result in a more readerly site.

The first thing I did was get rid of the "DIGG" tags that used to float to the upper right of each blog post. I liked them, but unfortunately, they caused D&R to load much too slowly for my tastes. You can still DIGG my posts, though; in fact, you can do a lot more now. I added a new feature to the site, which you can find just below each blog entry. Simply roll over the little gray box, and you can share any post instantly on, Digg, Facebook, Furl, Google, MySpace, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Technorati, Twitter, Yahoo, and many other popular social networking/bookmarking sites. Please, try it out!

Hopefully these changes not only will make D&R move a little faster, but also will help the site to become more interactive. I do it all for you, dear readers, always. ; )

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Against "elitism"

Courtesy of last night's Colbert Report comes this pithy segment against "elitism." And no, it's not against elitism per se. Instead, it's directed against a political culture that impugns relativism, only then to turn around and assail those who appear to have a modicum of intelligence or expertise. The segment's about the charge of elitism, in other words, and its disingenuous use. Brilliant (elitist?) stuff. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Scan this test!

From today's Inside Higher Ed:
Friday was the last day of classes at the University of California at San Diego, where students faced a weekend of studying before finals began on Monday. If any of them ventured to a nearby La Jolla shopping center, they might have encountered representatives from a new Web site there to make their pitch: Give us a test — any old test — and we’ll give you a $5 Starbucks coffee card.

If that sounds like a surprisingly blunt quid pro quo, it’s consistent with the purpose of the site, called, which encourages students to upload tests and exams from their courses — anonymously, if they want — for others to find and download. The concept has already aroused suspicion and concern among some faculty members at UCSD, where many of the posted tests originated, and seems to run afoul of both traditionally accepted norms of academic integrity and, potentially, copyright law.

Even though I'm vigilant about changing the content of my exams, I do not permit my students to keep their tests once I've marked them. I always review their tests in class with them, however, and although I collect the documents thereafter, I make it clear that it's the students' right to access their exams should they have questions, want to review the material in anticipation of future exams, etcetera.

I implemented this policy many years ago now (in graduate school, I believe), after hearing many stories about old exams finding their way into files and getting passed down through generations of students.

PostYourTest obviously raises the stakes on the old "exam file." I wonder: should I begin placing copyright declarations on all future exams I create? And has it really come to that?

Anyway, you can read the full Inside Higher Ed story here.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Something to ponder - Successories® edition

I was thumbing through the Skymall catalog on my last airplane trip and stumbled upon the page for Successories®. That's the company that sells those hokey "motivational" wall hangings that adorn many a corporate office. Well, for some reason today I happened to be thinking about the company' s slogans (they're hard to shake, I suppose), which stress the virtues of character, excellence, determination, and above all, teamwork. This prompted...

Something to ponder, #3: Why do people make such a big deal about there being no "I" in "team," when the letters "M" and "E" both are so glaringly there?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

New to the blog roll...

...Kim Christen's Long Road and David Novak's None Unchanged. Kim does great work on (among other topics) Aboriginal cultures and intellectual property rights. David is an up-and-coming communication researcher at Clemson, whom I met when he was a graduate student at Ohio University.

Be sure to check out their sites! Oh--and David and I use the same blog template, so don't be confused by all the (forgive me) difference and repetition.

Monday, June 02, 2008

More thoughts on Amazon's Kindle

This one comes to me somewhat circuitously, from my José Afonso Furtado Twitter feed. José is amazing. He Twitters about book news every day, practically all day, and I'm beginning to wonder when the man sleeps. His feed is like a stock market ticker, only for book mavens.

So apparently,'s electronic reading device, Kindle, which I blogged about back in November, caused something of a stir at this year's BookExpo America. The event, which wrapped up this past weekend in New York City, is the major annual book industry trade gathering in the United States.

At the Expo, publishers expressed concern with the price of Amazon's Kindle editions. In almost all cases, they're lower than those of the corresponding bound, physical volumes, and in many instances, Amazon has been selling the e-editions at a loss.

This pricing strategy is consistent with the company's prevailing business model, which has tended to forgo short- to medium-term profit in favor of building longterm customer loyalty. With Kindle, Amazon's reasoning seems to be: a major economic incentive is the only way to encourage sufficient numbers of people to switch over to electronic books and thus to make the technology viable on a mass scale.

This scares the heck out of publishers, many of whom, as today's New York Times notes, want to charge the same amount of money for e- and p-books. (That's what I'm calling paper-based editions these days.) Their reasoning seems to go something like this: the book industry's hurting (isn't it always?), and the only way to increase profit is to eliminate as many fixed capital costs as possible.

What's intriguing to me about this latest ebook kerfuffle is the book industry's apparent short-sightedness. It seems to be assuming that there's an absolute price threshold below which it cannot sell enough books to maintain profitability. To put it differently, the industry seems disinclined toward Chris Anderson's notion of the long tail, which stresses sustained, aggregate sales of digital goods over the long term.

The BEA controversy therefore makes me wonder how much the book industry's professed economic woes, and indeed broader laments about the "decline of reading," have to do with publishers' unwillingness to get more creative with their pricing. It seems intuitive to raise prices to increase profits; this has been the book industry's fallback position for decades. But Amazon seems to be saying the opposite: lower your prices, and you'll gain readers and increase sales. Could there be a more apt illustration of 20th vs. 21st century business models?

With that said, I still have serious misgivings about Kindle, which I expressed back in November. I'm also planning to say more about Kindle here in the coming months and at this October's American Studies Association conference. Stay tuned.